Fractures in the Bridge – Another disappointing CAPE report, this time on hydraulic fracking

Regular readers of this blog know of my ongoing frustration with the MDs at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). No group has so consistently disappointed me with the variance between the reports they are capable of producing and their actual output. As I have detailed in previous blog posts, their reports include bad epidemiology, bad takes on projects like the Site C Dam and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project , and bad work on natural gas flaring, fugitive emissions and the climate effects of natural gas.

Given my history with their previous articles, I approached their most recent report: Fractures in the Bridge: Unconventional (Fracked) Natural Gas, Climate Change and Human Health with some trepidation. Unsurprisingly, I discovered it represents another warmed over re-hashing of overblown claims, full of out-of-context citations, thoroughly debunked arguments, and completely irrelevant data from non-comparable jurisdictions. Most of this derives from their failure to recognize the most important factor one must understand when discussing hydraulic fracking:

Geology Matters

In BC, most of our natural gas is very deep and sour. As the BC Oil & Gas Commission puts it:

B.C.’s geology provides a natural advantage over other areas of the world where hydraulic fracturing takes place closer to the surface, as natural gas in B.C. is found deep underground, in some cases over four kilometres, and beneath impermeable layers of rock.

In the Montney, the gas is located 4 kilometers beneath the surface. That is 4000 m through layers and layers of virtually impermeable rock. If you were to start walking down the street at average human walking speed it would take you 48 minutes to travel the depth of this gas. This is why fracking really can’t do anything to affect our drinking water aquifers which are typically very shallow (usually less than 50m – 100m in depth). Sour gas, meanwhile, is poisonous and as a result it is dangerous to vent. As a consequence, venting and flaring of gas is strictly controlled in BC.

Much of the US gas is very shallow (like Powder River Basin in Montana) or co-located with liquid fuel deposits (the technical term being “associated gas”) which means it can be vented or flared while trying to get the crude oil. This can result in natural gas being released to affect the public health in the region of the wells.

This is not the case with BC natural gas.

You cannot compare shallow, conventional, associated gas to deep, non-associated gas because they are not comparable and if you do then, by definition, you are either ignorant or attempting to misinform.

Now let’s look at the CAPE report. It has page after page of citations from Pennsylvania and Texas where the Pennsylvania references deal with incredibly shallow gas deposits and the Texas articles deal with associated gas. Moreover almost all their references are in built up areas while BC natural gas is not from near-urban settings. The only Canadian reference they tend to use is the British Columbia Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing (which they call “the Review Panel, 2019”). This brings me to my next complaint. Their inability to effectively reference their work.

When I opened the report I went first to the section titled “Concerns Related to Hydraulic Fracturing” and almost immediately saw obviously wrong statements and/or information taken out of context. Just to be sure I went to the cited references only to discover just how shoddy the scholarship was.

As scientists we are taught about proper citation. If you cite a document, that document should be the source of the information cited. CAPE often fails in this task. Instead the CAPE report often relies on secondary sourcing (i.e. citing a report as if that report was the source of the information but instead the cited document simply reports that information from another source). They also have an issue where they appear unaware of the context of the information they are citing, which results in them citing things out of context or misstating what the references actually say. As an example, the second paragraph in the section starts with the line:

The most commonly used chemical [in fracking] is hydrochloric acid (Sibrizzi and LaPuma, 2016, p14).

Except when you look at Sabrizzi and LaPuma you discover it is a paper about: “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated With the Use of Water, Sand, and Chemicals in Shale Gas Production of the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale” and is not a reference that deals with the general composition of fracking fluids. For that information any reasonable observer would go to the EPA’s “Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry” which indicates that hydrochloric acid isn’t even in the top three of chemicals used in fracking fluids.

Fracking fluids are mostly made up of two components: they are 99% water and sand. Depending on the depth of the work the fluid will contain a handful of additives (including hydrochloric acid) added to improve performance and flow. For fracking fluids used in the deep subsurface these will include hydrocarbon distillates because that helps in the process deep down there.

Looking more deeply at that section, the first paragraph took the classic “fracking fluid is toxic” gambit that I addressed in my post On the misleading use of toxicology in discussions about fracking chemicals? Let’s get something straight right away. Fracking fluids are generally not good for human consumption. The reason for this is simple: fracking fluids are industrial mixtures intended to be used under controlled conditions. No one wakes up in the morning and asks themselves: “what shall I have for breakfast this morning: a nice chia smoothie or a glass of fracking fluid?” But that is because fracking fluid is literally being injected into geologic formations full of hydrocarbons. You wouldn’t go out and drink gasoline, so why would you expect that the fluids that are pushed into these formations be drinkable?

It is when discussing water that the CAPE report really goes off the rails. Water is a touchy subject but one where a lot of bad information is out there. As suggested by CAPE the EPA acknowledges that in some shallow US aquifers groundwater has been affected by fracking and even in BC the Review Panel noted that some surface spills have indeed affected small areas of groundwater. But this is not how CAPE represents the issue. They include a highlighted scare quote (p 18) that says:

There have been instances in which contamination of surface and ground water could clearly be linked to hydraulic fracturing activity.

They present lots of information from the United States and imply that it is relevant to the Canadian experience. The truth is that not a single example could be located by the BC Review Panel report of a water user in BC who lost the use of a drinking water supply to fracking. Not one. Thanks to the depth of the fracking in BC the likelihood of affecting a drinking water aquifer is extremely low and the spills that have occurred have all been surface spills that are extremely localized and relatively easy to clean up or are deep in the bush where no one would ever be affected by the spill.

Now go to the “Worker Health and Safety Section”. Apparently CAPE feels we should be worried because employees are exposed to BTEX and diesel exhaust. This is the CAPE people trying to make exposure to gasoline and diesel engines sound scary. Lots of people are exposed to gasoline components, like when we pump gas or walk along a street. I love how they make exposure to sand (crystal silica) sound terrifying. Better avoid sunny beaches. They also make a point that employees are exposed to power tools, because in CAPE’s experience only employees at fracking facilities are exposed to power tools.

The thing to understand is that we have occupational health and safety laws designed to protect employees from workplace risks and don’t need to ban fracking to ensure these laws are followed.

The folks at CAPE even manage to link fracking to auto accidents (see page 22 “Vehicle collisions”). Apparently when you get more jobs and industrial activity in an area you increase the number of auto accidents accordingly. Better avoid fracking, that will save all those unemployed people from potential accidents going to and from work.

I could write another 10,000 words debunking the CAPE report but you get the point. The article is another mis-mash of overblown claims, out-of-context citations, thoroughly debunked arguments and completely irrelevant data from jurisdictions with massively different geologies. It is clear that the authors had an agenda and they intended to write a report to advance that agenda. It is time for the good MDs at CAPE to either figure out how to write a reasonable scientific report or go back to their day jobs as physicians. Because if they tried to publish this report in any reputable source it would get a bench rejection and would be returned to its authors for a complete re-write.


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8 Responses to Fractures in the Bridge – Another disappointing CAPE report, this time on hydraulic fracking

  1. Chester Draws says:

    They are doctors, and they think hydrochloric acid is dangerous? They must know that it is the principal component of gastric acid, and that we have it in high concentrations in our stomach. It’s not even remotely toxic, although it will burn your throat on the way down.

    They are intending to deceive.

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  2. rogercaiazza says:

    Good post but I have one quibble that does not detract from the message that BC fracking is different than US fracking.

    Two quotes “It has page after page of citations from Pennsylvania and Texas where the Pennsylvania references deal with incredibly shallow gas deposits” and “As suggested by CAPE the EPA acknowledges that in some shallow US aquifers groundwater has been affected by fracking “ lead the reader to believe that the groundwater problems were caused by shallow gas deposits. I don’t think that is the case because the EPA report summary lists six problematic situations and none are related to shallow gas deposits.

    One of the major geologic formations for eastern US fracking is the Marcellus shale. I live near there and locals can tell you where it is possible to light the natural gas coming out of the shale. No one ever proposed drilling anywhere near there, if only because if it is leaking there would be less gas to harvest. The US deposits where they are fracking are shallower than BC but still separated from the surface by many layers of impenetrable rock.

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  3. Alison Malis says:

    Working peripherally in the legal field, as I do, I’m listening right now to an OGC VP say that the Montney Play NG is not 4,000 metres down. the measurement of 4,300 metres, or thereabouts, is a combination of an approximately on average 1,800 vertical drill, plus up to 2,500 metres of horizontal drilling. So not sure how you would calculate depth, but I’m thinking that categorically stating that the Montney play formation is 4,000 metres deep wouldn’t be accurate. That’s what the link said in your article too. CAPE needs to stick to doctoring and figuring out why there are no GPs in Victoria, but you should get your facts right. Or at least check. That’s not what I’m hearing this OGC guy say.

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    • DYakubowski says:

      Sure would help us laymen understamd better if these publications didn’t use vague and confusing terms like “Average depth” …then use a range of “1400-3800m”. Perhaps i don”t clearly understand the definition of “Average”…but in my mind it is supposed to be a single number! I understand enough of geology to visualize the area in question being of varying depth and geometry..and difficult to describe it’s actual dimensions without a visual 3d view.But i still dont think using the word “Average” is applicable to a range of values..and should be one number.

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